Under a cloak of secrecy, the South African government has returned to Angola a MiG-21 fighter jet that it acquired during the Border War conflict in 1988.
A prized possession of the South African Air Force (SAAF) Museum and placed on display at Air Force Base Zwartkop, the MiG-21bis Fishbed with serial C340 of the Força Aérea Popular de Angola (FAPA, the Angolan Air Force) was acquired in December 1988 when the jet landed in northern South West Africa (now Namibia) after becoming lost and running low on fuel.
General Francisco Afonso, Commander of the Angolan Air Force, announced on Angolan National Radio (RNA) that the MiG-21 was returned to Angola on Sunday 17 September. This was, he is quoted as saying, a goodwill gesture by South African President Jacob Zuma to mark the official opening that day of the Cuito Cuanavale monument.
The fighter was quietly removed from the SAAF Museum’s display hall where it was exhibited next to a Mirage F1CZ, its SAAF adversary during the Border War, on Friday 15 September before being transported to the nearby AFB Waterkloof. It was then flown to Angola inside an Angolan Air Force Ilyushin IL-76TD Candid (serial T-911) transport aircraft.
It is not known if Angola specially requested the return of the aircraft, but Angola has many old MiG-21 aircraft available locally for display purposes.
The news has not been met with enthusiasm by South African military historians and aviation enthusiasts. The aircraft had pride of place at the SAAF Museum and was an important exhibit, drawing many local and foreign visitors to view and take photos of the two old adversaries standing next to each other.
The fighter was acquired by South Africa during the Border War, when on 14 December 1988 FAPA pilot Lt Vinez took-off from the airfield at Lubango for a routine ferry flight to Menongue airfield. However, he became lost after entering cloud and decided to divert to the airfield at Cuito Cuanavale.
Flying in a south-easterly direction, but west of the planned route, he became low on fuel and executed a near perfect landing in an open field outside Tsumeb in the then South West Africa (now Namibia). The aircraft sustained minor damage to the underside.
An ex-SAAF officer, who requested not to be identified and was present at the time, says that contrary to popular belief, Lt Vinez had no intention to defect. During discussions at the accident site with him, his greatest concern was that he was in UNITA occupied territory. “It took some time to convince him otherwise,” the officer remarked.
As there was no formal request at the time for the return of the aircraft, it was repaired to display condition for the SAAF Museum by Atlas Aviation’s Apprentice School and first put on display in 1991. It had subsequently been repainted by the SAAF Museum.
Numerous requests to the SAAF and SAAF Museum for comment over the past two days were not responded to.